The guardian who watches over the citizens

by Digital Rights LAC on November 29, 2023


In Uruguay, to the surprise of many of its citizens, the purchase of surveillance technologies has also been reported. Once analyzing the scope of these digital tools and seeing the risk of them being used for anti-democratic practices, the authorities’ promises of “respecting the usual guarantees” become no longer sufficient.

By Fabrizio Scrollini*

The news that the Uruguayan government had secretly purchased software for electronic surveillance operations was surprising, but not inexplicable. Public safety has been one of the hottest topics among public debate, and the government has made progress in different types of solutions involving technology, which includes video surveillance, software and the use of drones.

“The Guardian” (name of the recently purchased software) allows authorities to analyze real-time telephone calls and emails. It is a powerful technology that, according to the authorities, will be used “with the usual guarantees“, ie through a warrant. The technology provided by the Brazilian company Digitro had previously been used in Brazil during the World Cup. Uruguayan phone companies have already begun to acquire the equipment for its full implementation. The framework of secrecy that has surrounded this case has prevented the answering of some key questions, such as what kind of protocols will the Uruguayan security agencies follow to implement these policies? What are the institutional arrangements in terms of accountability for those who operate this technology? How will Uruguayan security agencies cooperate with other agencies at international level?

Two factors complicate the answering of these questions: the cloak of secrecy surrounding the operation and the lack of clear regulations. On one hand, the purchase of this tool without any parliamentary control and carried out in secret, at the very least, points towards an improper procedure in a democracy. On the other hand, we find here different types of regulations: data protection, the regulation of intelligence systems and access to public information. There has been no analysis in Uruguay of how this game of regulations establishes clear rules for operating this technology while respecting fundamental human rights.

This scenario should in turn be contextualized within the reality of Uruguay: a country generally respectful of the law and human rights. Unfortunately, human rights in the digital era are little understood by decision makers. An example of this was the recent declaration of the member organizations of the Network of Open Government in Uruguay, opposing a Computer Crimes Act. While the regulation has some aspects that are worthy of consideration, many of the definitions are not clear, and in some aspects completely prohibits legal conducts. To date, several civil society organizations that include the DATA, CAINFO and Amnesty International have expressed their concern about the treatment of this topic.

The purchase of The Guardian and the little debate that has followed, demonstrates the need to rethink several public policies on security within the country. Uruguay is now a consolidated democracy but in the past, authoritarian governments established surveillance systems on civilians without any control. Although that is now part of a distant past, the future that is being built should be geared towards preventing any further abuse. The technology of today allows for the monitoring of the population at a previously inconceivable scale and much more efficient than ever before. The security needs and requirements of a state, in an increasingly complex world where powerful criminal organizations also have access to this technology, are obviously very real. However, the response from the state should be guided by the principles of necessity and proportionality, with respect for human rights. For this matter, it is not good enough to mention “the usual guarantees”, but rather to establish adequate regulations and train all the stakeholders (government, civil society, parliamentarians and judges) for the new types of challenges being faced in the digital era.

The arrival of The Guardian and the bill of cybercrime, among other measures, predict a bleak future for digital rights in Uruguay which is part of a trend that seems to be consolidating itself around the continent. Only determined and intelligent actions, which aim towards standards and policies that provide guarantees, together with a civil society with sufficient capacity of control can help to prevent this.

*Data Uruguay. This report summarizes some points of the source “Penumbra: Surveillance, Security and Public Information in Uruguay”, available online.
**Translation by Franklin Roach.